The Client's Question
Recently I was asked a question by one of my
clients that sent me into a state of contemplation. The question asked if by
changing an organization's
leadership style to one of greater
participation, would the leaders be handicapped when they find themselves in
other, more "aggressive" business environments?
The implication was that if
aggressive behavior is the norm in, say, a large organization, then a
participative style of management in one division might just "dull the
sword" when one is having to operate outside the division.
At first I found myself disturbed by the term "dull the sword" when applied
to participative leadership. It has never been my belief that this style of
leadership is in any way weak or passive. But then it occurred to me that
one could easily draw this conclusion.
In the American business culture the strong, independent-thinking leader is
still rewarded for these behaviors. Even though there is ample evidence that
organizations fare better when they focus on the human dimension1, this
image of strong, aggressive leadership still prevails. And so the question
above is legitimate.
While contemplating this question, I thought "What would I do if I, as a
participative leader, found myself in a room full of strong, demanding,
aggressive leaders, all vying for the right to press their agendas? Would I
be handicapped in any way by having acquired a participative style?"
It's Not Your Only Option
I think the fallacy of these questions lies in the assumption that
participative leaders are in some way weak and, therefore, not capable of
holding their own in an aggressive environment. Being a participative
leader does not imply that other styles are not available to use when
For example, I once facilitated a 20-person problem solving team made up
of 10 union leaders and 10 management leaders. This was the first team of
this kind in the company's 100-year history, and the team had great difficulty
making progress. Just when I thought we were moving forward, something would
blow up and there would be finger-pointing and red faces everywhere.
As the weeks progressed, I tried to be the model of temperance and the voice
of reason., but the eruptions persisted. One day we were working well
together when the group suddenly fell back into their old behaviors. I
decided in my mind that a complete change of state was needed. I had to do
something completely different to move them out of their petty,
As I stood in the middle of the U-shaped tables, suddenly I threw my pen on
the floor with such force that its cap flew off, the veins stood out on my
forehead, my face turned purple and angry, and I let loose with a string of
profanities that almost made the carpet curl.
Within an instant the room was silent...and stunned. This model of
temperance, this voice of mediation, this bastion of reason had just erupted
like Mt. St. Helens. It was all an act, of course. I knew exactly what I was
doing...and it worked. The meeting proceeded without a hitch.
Just because we possess characteristics of temperance, and skills of
mediation and facilitation, doesn't mean we don't have other options (such
as aggression) available to us when needed.
In the years that I have been doing this work rarely have I had to resort to
such tactics. Most of the time modeling better behaviors tends to influence
the group to behave similarly. The point is simply, you always have other
"Sharpening the Sword"
As I continued to discuss this issue with my client, I thought of all the
people whose skills have been enriched and honed by the addition of
participative practices. Perhaps it is only human nature that as we acquire
new skills, our confidence levels rise.
I have watched people at all levels of the organization solve problems they
thought were unsolvable. I have watched people lead discussions that they
would have never considered possible. I have watched the most unlikely
people promoted into better positions because their new-found participative
skills turned them into more effective leaders.
In a sense, and to use our current metaphor, they had actually "sharpened
the sword" instead, giving them more confidence in dealing with the
There is something inherently reassuring when you know you have the ability
to accomplish "the impossible." There is also enormous comfort in knowing
our group or department's performance levels are high because your people
In my own case, I have found myself in many different environments over the
years, some open and inviting, but others hostile and aggressive. Confidence
is a welcome ally when you know your stuff works. You know it, and the
people you're with soon know it too. Perhaps this is why the purple-faced,
vein-popping tactics are seldom needed.
1. Competitive Advantage Through People by Jeffrey
"Conflict is a violation of harmony. If you participate in it, you are part
of the problem, not the solution."
Dr. Wayne W. Dyer
Related Leadership Programs:
Essential Skills of Leadership